Do clothes maketh the academic?

The past fortnight has been a little strange. I’ve been entirely lost in that last of the grants and the beginning of teaching – drowning a little in trying to ensure both share focus with a mind that isn’t complete marmalade. It’s been OK so far…

But in this distraction – as my small cat continues to chew up all the toilet paper in a way to gain attention – I’ve been finding the oddest things to read. And these articles have argued, in their ways, that I’ve not been living up to expectations I either keep on forgetting existed (or didn’t realise existed in the first place).

All in all, it’s been a smidge disconcerting because, as I’ve been focusing on holding everything together in a vaguely balanced way, appearance ideals rear their – ugly is far too strong a word – boring head. Sometimes having to worry about what I look like – or disregard another article telling me what I’m supposed to look like – is becoming increasingly dull.

Even when the debates are deeply amusing.

Alvy Carragher impaled one such article – how a good woman dresses and behaves.

The usual lala about modest clothing and heels and makeup – and no doubt brushing your hair. I love Alvy’s blog – the way she sees things is brilliantly skewed. And, it’s true, it’s all the usual lala but it’s exhausting to continually have these polarized conversations where, on one side, women must love themselves for who they are and, on the other, are only lovable if they follow however many steps to look a certain way. It’s exhausting to those of us who are used to the conversation, used to dissecting it and ignoring it where it doesn’t suit. I wear loads of dresses and skirts but I also love my Skechers and am rarely fussed to brush my hair in any meaningful way.  I don’t own an iron and my style is essentially grounded in my refusal to iron. But we’re the lucky ones – those of us who can happily do that dissection with little thought. I worry about those women who don’t do that dissection so easily – those who will always struggle and those girls (children even) who need to learn that the conversation is one that can be dissected. The lucky ones need to become teachers of this because someone taught us too.

For all that the value of feminism is argued, it’s worth and it’s meaning, I will always be a feminist while we still have to tell little girls that they can be whoever and whatever they want, wear whatever they want, without worrying whether they’ll be girly or beautiful or accepted enough. While we still have to tell them, and write at length about it, and make specific art and advertising that highlights in big bold interpretive-dancing letters that girls can grow into whatever sort of person they want, whoever feels most true to them.

For me, that’s one of the important feminist fights.

But these swirling thoughts – buffering against the grant writing and the teaching this fortnight – were compounded by another article about what academics should wear, not a dress code per se but a suggestion of clothes to be worn so that you’re taken seriously.

Again, something else to be dissected – kept and discarded as relevant. Something I’d ordinarily laugh at and forget by my first chai. But it’s stuck in my head because I’m trying to work out whether what I wear really, truly, deep down matters in the basic aspects of getting good work done. Am I a better writer in a fitted dress than if I’m embracing comfy man-repeller pants and a cardi?

Obviously, the academic world would grind to a shattering halt without cardis so they always have to be on a list, if a list is what we’re writing.

During my PhD, I wrote absolutely everywhere. I dated a musician for almost my entire literature review, which was almost entirely written in various pubs while he gigged. If the mood strikes, I can write in underwear as easily as I can in jeans as easily as a conference dress. (This may be my tell as a researcher – I don’t own fancy going-out dresses but I do own dresses that I buy because I want to wear them at conferences). If the mood doesn’t though, if it’s a day where I delete more than I write and swear often and loudly at the screen, I could look like Ms Moneypenny in all her ironed, pencil-skirted, brushed-hair glamour and it wouldn’t make a drop of difference. And it’s still the case now – my clothes don’t influence how much I write, or whether it’s actually any good at all. My honesty does.

But that’s just me.

It may be different for others.

But I also wonder whether this idea of what an academic should look like speaks to a sense of lack that we sometimes feel, that I sometimes feel. That, for so long, there’s been a stereotype that academia is a fluffy, unreal job (which it is very much not)_and so we need to clothe ourselves in a style more akin to more ‘serious’ jobs. Is it a sense of the saying that you dress for the job you want, and that some people see this as a way of making academia more respectable in a sense? The cardis have to be sleek, rather than nanna?

For me there’s a difference between dressing for occasion – my conference dresses make me feel more confident because their special-ness gives them a little bit more power – and dressing for something you think others want, for something you think you should be. The first still feels playful – it winks to the person I am while I’m doing something that makes me feel more nervous. The second though, makes me feel as though I’d be dressing up, pulling on a mask to be a caricature of a ‘good’ academic. The style over substance.

Have I over-thought this? I’ve been over-thinking everything lately so this could well be the case. But in all the issues we need to discuss in academia, what we should look like feels like a distraction. And distractions only take our attention away from the things that make our hearts (my heart anyway) beat in this work.

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Do clothes maketh the academic?

  1. Having just watched graduation and the associated frippery, I would have to say that if clothes maketh the academic, there are a lot of very strange academics going around. Wait …..


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